The Urge to Tinker

People can’t just leave well enough alone.    At least I can’t.    I’ve never left a guitar, amp, car or motorcycle in “stock” condition for long.  “No user serviceable parts inside” might as well be a challenge instead of a warning.    As time goes on this is getting harder and harder.   Modern cars don’t leave that much room for “improvement”, and the tools required to work on them, along with the skill necessary to perform much of that work are much more complex, or at least different.

I grew up in a working class small town culture where seemingly everybody worked on their own cars and owning things like a grease gun, timing light and a dwell meter were common place.  My dad took tubes out of our TV to the drug store to test them, and my first car was a Ford Falcon station wagon with a good body but a tired engine that my dad and I rebuilt over one summer.

I’ve never been what one would call proficient as a mechanic, but I know enough to “get by”, with the aid of a shop manual and basic mechanical knowledge.    I also know when I’m in over my head and when I should take things to a “pro”.    I used to do front end alignment on my VW’s, following instructions in the “How to keep your VW alive for the Complete Idiot” book.   (An apt title if ever there was one) After I rebuilt the suspension on my 98 Z3, I didn’t think twice about driving to somewhere that they used lasers and other sophisticated stuff to set everything straight and was happy to get a “You did all this without a lift lying on the ground?” comment.

Okay, I’ve wandered a little off track here, but I think there are lots of people out there with a similar story.

Many guitar players are as much “into” tinkering and modifying their equipment as they are into actually playing them, and for many, part of the fun involves the time they spend working on guitars and amps.  (For some, it’s probably most of the fun.)

By 1966 I owned a Fender Bandmaster and a 1963 Fender Telecaster (which I still own) along with an Alamo reverb tank.    I probably could have played every gig I’ve had with that particular rig and 98% of the audience would have not noticed a difference.

Guitarists, unless they are fairly wealthy, usually develop a degree of expertise in performing routine maintenance on guitars and amplifiers.  Over the years I’ve picked up a few skills like leveling and dressing frets, filing nuts, setting intonation changing pickups, switches and pots, replacing transformers and I even learned how to set the bias on my Bandmaster.   I’ve even worked on a few of my friends guitars for minor stuff.   I have several mongrel “parts guitars” and a couple of heavily modified Chinese Strat knockoffs that have become mainstays onstage.

Virtually every amp I’ve owned has used vacuum tubes, which renders the technology involved to be on the same approximate level as a 55 Chevy.     Most of us can perform simple tasks and modifications and perform limited “experiments” while avoiding catastrophic failure or electrocution.  I suspect this could be one of the reasons that guitar amps still use tubes when most other electronic devices haven’t used them since the late 60’s………

I recently acquired a Quilter 101 amp head.     I’ve addressed this in the last three blog entries, so I won’t go into details about it.  But it seems about as likely to need repair or maintenance as a crowbar, nor does modification seem too likely, at least in my lifetime.   I’m also running out of stompboxes and speakers to try with it.   At the age of 64, this might be the last amp I will buy——–  maybe I’ll wear out a pot or a switch——–

But, who knows?

There’s still plenty of “fun” to be had working on my guitars, and I’m in the middle of turning this nice ash Tele body into a working guitar.   I won’t deny that working on the gear and trying new stuff has been part of the appeal of being a guitarist, so nobody will get the lecture: “You’d improve your sound by practicing more.” from me.   I discovered long ago that there’s only so much difference that your equipment will make.    “Wherever you go, there you are.”

I don’t actually think I was born to tinker, but I’ve been conditioned that I should do whatever needs to be done myself and only pay people to do stuff that I can’t.   The thought of taking my Sportster to a mechanic and pay them $120 an hour to work on something about as simple as a lawn mower just didn’t sit right with me and the only time anyone other than myself took a wrench to it over seven years was the guy who put new tires on it.

The world is changing, fewer and fewer people work on their own cars and nobody even thinks of repairing a toaster.  Home electronic devices change so fast that by the time something wears out buying a new one is cheaper than repairing an old one.

I remember selling one of the first 63″ Fujitsu Plasma TV’s back in 2003 for $25,000 dollars, and you can now buy a 65 inch LCD TV for $1200.   Probably not a lot of them will ever go to the shop.

I have no grand conclusion to make here.   The world isn’t going to drop out of orbit because we’re all surrounded by things we don’t understand.

It does strike me though, that someone from, say, 1890 probably understood more about everything he or she was surrounded by. The “world” was much simpler to behold on a day to day basis.    Human beings are naturally control freaks to the extent that some of our activity has to be directed at controlling the number of factors that are “just out of our hands” that the simple act of repairing something yourself provides a degree of comfort.

In an increasingly bewilderingly complicated world, each of our “spheres of influence” is shrinking and the era of the “jack of all trades” is surely coming to a close, along with the “mechanical” era.

But, people will still “tinker” with stuff, they’ll just be playing with computer programs and such.   Much like people now modify their vehicles by adding a different “chip” to the engine management software instead of replacing the carburetor.